Poll: Seaplane runway coming to Lake Union in 2016 — what do you think?

Sailors, kayakers and powerboaters enjoying Lake Union. Will a proposed seaplane runway change life much for boaters?

Sailors, kayakers and powerboaters enjoying Lake Union. Will a proposed seaplane runway change life much for boaters?

Whether it’s taking your own boat out for a spin, renting a boat or kayak, or enjoying the camaraderie of Duck Dodge, Lake Union is an immensely unique setting for Seattle boaters. And part of the charm of operating any type of vessel on the lake is that of seaplanes taking off and landing as you enjoy the water and city scenery.

Throughout the past few years, though, boating traffic on the lake has seemingly increased and so too have the rumblings for the need of a permanent seaplane runway to make life safer for boaters and seaplane passengers and pilots alike (including mentions in Three Sheets here in 2013 and here in 2014). So when I heard that a proposal for a landing strip on Lake Union was imminent back in April (here), I wasn’t all that surprised.

Now, after an application has been filed with and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Seattle and Kenmore Air are looking to have the new “advisory zone” in place for the summer of 2016.

This proposed zone will consist of eight lighted buoys that will be illuminated by pilots “to provide a safe flight path for floatplanes going in and out of Lake Union.” Being that the runway will be advisory in nature, boaters would be encouraged to steer clear only when the buoys are lighted, indicating that a plane is approaching.

Approximate location of the lighted buoys

Approximate location of the lighted buoys

While the official public notice date has expired, you can still submit comments on the proposal to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager Darren Habel at darren.habel@usace.army.mil.

With the building of this new advisory zone on the horizon, it brings up a few questions for area boaters:

Did you know about the proposed seaplane runway on Lake Union?

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Do you think an "advisory" lane on Lake Union for seaplanes to take off and land in is a good idea?

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How will the new advisory zone impact boating on Lake Union?

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20 Responses to Poll: Seaplane runway coming to Lake Union in 2016 — what do you think?

  1. Bob March 9, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    I have had a boat moored at the AGC marina for 20 years. I have been able to watch the traffic on the lake steadily increase with paddle board and kayak renters completely cluttering the lake. This along with the normal traffic has all the makings of a disaster sooner or later. I see this as a good solution in a manner similar to what has been done in the inner harbor of Victoria. Users will be made aware of the area and can easily avoid it. Yes Kenmore Air is a commercial enterprise but so are many other companies using the lake. I think they provide a valued service to the community and should continue to be able to safely service the area. This is long overdue.

  2. Judith Malmgren January 6, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    I am firmly opposed to the installation of buoys to set up an airstrip on the lake. I am a life long sailor with a sailboat on Lake Union. I have reviewed the proposal from the USACE and if you review it will see the height and dimension of the buoys which at 5 feet tall and 2 feet wide will create a significant obstruction to sailing on an already crowded lake. They will be permanently lit and will flash when a plane is approaching.
    I have never felt endangered by seaplanes and there are no recorded accidents between seaplanes and boats.
    Please be aware if you are a sailor your boom is only 2-4 feet off the water and negotiating the buoys will prohibit sailing in the middle of the lake.
    The comment period is still open and comments can be directed to Laurel Kanawyer at laurel.kanawyer@dnr.wa.gov or 253-441-0904 and Darren Habel darren.habel@usace.army.mil or 206-764-6883. The lake is a public space and governed by the state for the public.

  3. Bruce Hinds December 24, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    I have to question the “improvement.”

    Safety is of course the key factor and on the surface it would appear that a dedicated lane would make sense. One factor that I don’t see discussed is the lack of knowledge of the less than average boater that is renting a boat on lake union. Trying to come about, jibe or doing and untended maneuver to exit or avoid the landing lane could cause more problems than it solves.

    As it is now and has been for an incredibly long time, as a Kenmore pilot advised me before I started going in there, pilots can see where it will be safe to land. You see a pattern develop and with the whole lake available, landing into the wind is pretty easy and you know sail boats are not going up wind.

    I don’t think boaters have the experience to judge the speed and landing requirements of seaplanes, that could cause problems, and as a pilot, I don’t want to be landing in crosswind choppy conditions and expecting a boater to maneuver just before crossing the land. I’d rather have the ability to land into the wind and have the area free of buoys to avoid him.

    I know the buoys are an advisory, but what if we land outside the buoy to avoid someone and someone else does something stupid that caused a boating accident. Are seaplane pilots then liable for the chaos.

    Since there’s never been an accident between and airplane and a boat on Lake Union, I think we need to take a long hard look at this.

    Bruce HInds

  4. Whiskey Charlie December 13, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    Making the “lane” available to the seaplane guys sounds to me like Cooperation not Exclusion… the same thing that had to be done when we painted the stripe down the middle of our roads…

  5. Michael Tanksley December 11, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    I am highly skeptical of this scheme.

    First, as a sailor/boater/kayaker, to me they will mean just so many more obstacles on the lake. No problem when there are no other craft nearby, but when things get busy, they will add complication. They will also increase visual clutter.

    Second, as a pilot, I have landed a float plane only once on Lake Union on a busy football Saturday afternoon. I did not have any problem finding a lane. On other days, when the wind could be coming from any direction, a lane would limit my options for landing more into the wind. I’m comfortable with X-wind landing, but I prefer to not limit my options.

    Third, as a taxpayer, this sounds like it will be an expensive system to install and maintain.

  6. Jim December 6, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

    You heard it here first… This will RUIN boating on Lake Union. Apparently most of the people in favor of this do not boat regularly on the lake, otherwise they would be against it.

    The runway was actually installed for a few weeks last season and it was a disaster. Prevailing northwesterly winds force the drift diagonally across the lake and this means boats will need to be re-positioned every 10-15 minutes. If the winds are westerly then drifting won’t even be possible at all. Combine this with the ever-increasing invasion of idiotic and unsafe paddle boarders and you have a recipe for disaster.

    For the past several decades seaplanes and boats have coexisted on Lake Union and pilots don’t take off or land until a clear path is determined. Since its a no wake zone, boats travel very slowly and this has never been a problem on the 80+ days each year I spend on the lake.

    RECOMMENDATION: Don’t allow a “for profit company” to destroy a public space like this. Would you allow a runway to be installed down the middle of Discovery Park? Of Course not… Whats different here?The objective here is to lower their taxi times and increase their profits.

    At a minimum, allow the ability to drop anchor in the lake for the afternoon in a restricted section of the lake (currently no anchoring is allowed except the 4th of July)

  7. Ross December 5, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    I both boat on Lake Union and fly out of Kenmore Air on Lake union. I look forward to having this advisory area where boaters and airplanes coexist, but with an improvement to safety. Sailboats, kayaks, and powerboats should all be able to pass through the area, but with education maybe there will be hightened awareness not to linger in the runway lane, and to pay more attention to both air and sea operations. The seaplanes add a great sense of advernture to the local scene, as well as provide alternative transportation to slow driving. I hope both the recreational boating and seaplanes safely share Lake Union for a long time to come!

  8. andy December 5, 2015 at 2:00 pm #

    Since it’s just an advisory area, what if I don’t feel like moving? No matter what they say…

    It WILL become a mandatory exclusion zone with financial penalties/fines!

    It’s not hard to be aware of your surroundings while boating and see the planes. If someone is inattentive enough to not see planes what makes you think they will see small flashing lights on bouys?

    My biggest complaint is that it is right in the middle of the lake. Move it to one side or the other so that the lake isn’t cut up into so many small pieces. And comparing it to Victoria, well you can’t actually sail there. So are we going to eventually ban sailing on lake Union? I hope not. I also don’t want the float planes to disappear from the lake.

    One final question I haven’t seen asked or answered: How many planes have to circle the lake before landing because they can’t find a space to land on their first approach?

    • Doug Bostrom December 5, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

      It WILL become a mandatory exclusion zone with financial penalties/fines!

      Possibly, because we often end up being forced to style our laws to suit the small proportion of people with no common sense, imagination or whatever bit of their cognition is missing/inoperative. That’s why we have so many “stupid” rules and regulations; of course they’re stupid because they’re addressing stupidity.

      A small proportion, tiny, but when populations increase those pesky little bits at the edge of the bell curve begin to signify.

      We can’t fix human nature in its entirety but we can attempt a bit of a substitution for savvy with flashing lights and (maybe, down the road, if obtuse is a big enough signal) some encouragement and reminders in the form of a ton of bricks falling onto the truly oblivious.

  9. Tim Brooks December 4, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

    This balance of commercial commerce and recreational interests is perhaps more prevalent here on Lake Union than anywhere else in the world. Kenmore Air, Seattle Seaplanes and the numerous international itinerant aircraft clearing customs on Lake Union keep the rich history of aviation alive on the lake (the worlds first international scheduled airline flew from Lake Union and of course, Boeing) and offer the city and region a year round daily scheduled connection to communities north of Seattle. Supporting a measure that will clearly enhance safety and help preserve commercial and recreational uses on this busy lake makes good sense.

  10. Mike December 4, 2015 at 8:49 am #

    This is a great idea. I am concerned, however, about how effective those buoys will be by themselves. Those who haven’t read this article or otherwise learned about the purpose of those buoys are likely to see the flashing lights and say “huh, I wonder what that’s all about”? There’s no reason to think their first reaction will be “full rudder, let’s get out of the way”.

    In other words, education needs to be part of the success of this. Area boating classes (including Washington’s boater education website) can start talking about it. Boat rental outfits should explicitly tell clients about it.

    But how will the thousands of experienced occasional boaters, who have no reason to access such resources, be informed? Over time, they’ll figure it out of course. But there could be a lot of initial confusion.

    • Mark Schoening December 4, 2015 at 8:56 am #

      Kudos to Kenmore Air and those in the boating community supporting this, the next logical step in assuring a vibrant, inclusive, and safe Lake Union for years to come,

      • Dr Bollen July 4, 2016 at 9:07 am #

        Kudos for Kenmore Air using their political power to take over a public space for their own benefit..

        Why not let them land on Greenlake? There is far less boat traffic

    • Doug Bostrom December 4, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

      Slightly tongue-in-cheek: confusion often causes heads to swivel, minds to engage. Maybe enough to stop obsessing over the tactical turn situation and see flashing wing lights?

      You’re quite right about completing the job as best as possible by educational outreach. TSNW, by any chance do you know if there’s a plan for that?

  11. Marty Ellison December 4, 2015 at 12:38 am #

    Where else in the world do they allow families and kids to play on the runway of an international airport? It’s not a good mix, and I’m pleased to see action to improve safety for both boaters and aircraft passengers. Considering the volume of float plane traffic and the number of people enjoying the lake, it’s remarkable there has not been a serious accident. As a boater and a seaplane pilot, I think such a plan is way overdue.

  12. Dave December 3, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

    The “seaplane” lane is a good safe proposal – especially for warning the occasional users of Lake Union… it’s a given that they won’t be familiar with the ebb & flow of vessel traffic that normally occurs (and seaplanes on water are vessels). The experienced, regular sailors on Lake U are already well familiar with the seaplane traffic, but again, the “seaplane” lane idea will better protect the less familiar. The last thing any of us wants is another “Duck Boat” type accident – where everyone knew about a bad traffic congestion area (the Aurora Bridge) and nothing, absolutely nothing was ever done about it.

  13. Dan Millar December 3, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    Especially during the busy times on Lake Union, it seems very essential to keep everyone safe from collision. A designated advisory zone seems to me to be crucial for this task. Everyone’s situational awareness will increase significantly.

  14. Paul Thorpe December 2, 2015 at 7:21 pm #

    I think this is an idea that is long overdue. I am both a boater and a patron of Kenmore Air. There is room for both on Lake Union, as long as pilots and boaters continue to exercise caution and courtesy. The buoys will make the boater’s job easier by letting them know when a plane is approaching. Take offs are very obvious, who can miss the roar, but landings not so much. As a sailor, I will appreciate the alert that the buoys will provide.

  15. Peyton Perkins December 2, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

    It seems foolish to me that this has not been done sooner. These traffic schemes have existed in Victoria and Nanaimo harbours among other places in B.C. and Alaska for years, and can only increase safety for all of us, both boaters and charter aircraft.

    I have seen some close calls between boats and aircraft, and can only say thanks to the powers that be.

  16. Doug Bostrom December 2, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    A reasonable effort like this one that reduces ambiguity and improves situational awareness in a crazy environment like Lake Union in summer can’t be a bad thing.

    As well, at least in my book recreational boaters should always defer to people who are making their living as professional mariners, as we do with fishermen, tugs etc. One might debate how many of the passengers departing and arriving at Lake Union are simply in a recreational mode themselves, but the pilots themselves become professional mariners when they touch the water.

    I’m frankly amazed at how well Lake Union has functioned with all the roles crammed into it, but it’s a constant rolling of dice; luck will eventually run out. Here we’re trying to add some good luck, add some time before and between the bad moments. Same deal as many of our practices on our boats: make your own luck where you can.

    As well, if/when there is a collision of the kind we’re talking about avoiding here, the general rending of garments and wailing might be much less noisy and stupid if we don’t have to start with “we didn’t do anything at all to avoid it. Why?”

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